How Buy America Fights Labor Exploitation Around the Globe

By Brian Lombardozzi
May 31 2017 |
Members of the United Steelworkers union pictured during a 2014 rally near the Iron Range in Minnesota.

Why thinking globally and acting locally matters.

When we talk about Buy America, we often focus on American workers. Buy America preferences, after all, give U.S. workers and companies the first shot at work like building infrastructure or equipping our military, making sure taxpayer dollars are reinvested in local communities rather than being sent overseas.

What we often overlook is that Buy America also ensures jobs and tax dollars aren’t offshored to countries that will exploit labor, working conditions, the environment and other rights that Americans long fought to obtain. Buy America isn’t just about protecting American jobs — it’s also a way for federal and state governments to take a stand against unfair labor practices abroad.

But Buy America has also gotten some unfair pushback lately from opponents who say the policy has a dark side. These folks argue that Buy America’s framing is problematic, as it pits working people in the United States against working people in other nations. In practice, the opponents say, Buy America leads to campaigns laced with racism and immigrant bashing.

Xenophobia and racism certainly exist in the United States, and there are people who unfortunately fan the flames. Like most nations, the United States is working to reconcile itself with a history that has not been fair to all who call the United States home. It’s been a tough road, to put it mildly.

As a nation, we have a lot to come to terms with to assure the principles on which we were founded apply to all of us equally. But we are a nation where, as citizens, we can organize to change laws and make the United States a better place for everyone. Having that voice also allows us to speak up about how our tax dollars are spent — including when the government opts to buy products from overseas at the expense of people in places who cannot speak up for themselves.

We must face that racism and xenophobia exist in the United States. But let’s not confuse this with the noble goal of reinvesting public money back in the communities from which it came, or the desire to see public money spent on products manufactured in safe conditions that do not pollute the communities in which they are made. 

As much as we want to see the communities we live in thrive, we also don't want to see communities and workers overseas exploited for a lower price tag — while those doing the exploiting see higher profit margins. 

Standing up for jobs here in the United States does not mean you stand against workers overseas. In fact, it means the opposite.

In the United States, we have democratic institutions that allow people to fight for fair wages and business practices that keep our communities healthy and prosperous. Many citizens of other countries do not have those rights, and often are forced work long hours in unsafe conditions for minuscule wages.

For many of these workers, demanding things like better pay or safer workplaces isn’t an option. Being in a labor union can send you to prison — or worse. This is the case in some countries that the United States has negotiated trade deals with, along with other nations with which we do regular business, including China.

In September 2011, for example, hundreds of Chinese villagers in Haining, Zhejiang Province staged a mass three-day protest of a solar factory after the death of a large number of fish in the local water supply. Pollution from the solar factories in the area was to blame. Riot police quickly used heavy-handed tactics to quell the protest, and production quickly resumed.

Then there’s the case of apparel workers in Bangladesh. In April 2013, an eight-story building housing five garment factories collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. Although the tragedy drew international attention, things quickly went back to normal. Slate reported in December that while factories have safer structures, working conditions are “so oppressive they’re killing people.”

We need to demand better of our trading partners, but we also need to set an example by upholding our own labor laws. Buy America has a role to play here, as it supports the workers and businesses that comply with the labor and environmental laws so many Americans fought so long to win and maintain.

When companies opt to outsource, they often do so to avoid these laws. Instead, companies are seeking out higher profits by exploiting workers and communities overseas. Those overseas workers are doing the same job as their American counterparts, only for much lower pay over longer work hours, in unsafe working conditions and in a manner that pollutes the local environment.

As much as we want to see the communities we live in thrive, we also don't want to see communities and workers overseas exploited for a lower price tag — while those doing the exploiting see higher profit margins. American workers can take a step toward building solidarity with these communities abroad by demanding that people and communities across the globe are treated fairly, from places like Michigan and Alabama to China, Russia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and South Korea. 

This starts with fighting to ensure workers have a stronger voice during future trade negotiations. In the past, people at the table have tended to have other priorities, mainly maximizing profits. That hasn’t been good for workers in the United States or abroad.

But in the meantime, we can set the tone by making sure that the products and materials our government purchases with taxpayer money do not further exploitation. We want that money to be invested in communities we live in, supporting manufacturing processes that abide by labor and environmental laws that generations before us fought hard to put into place.

Buy America both encourages local investment and aims to prevent exploitation around the globe. It is just another way to think globally — but act locally.